“Aida’s Secrets” starts out as a fairly straightforward documentary about reuniting two long-separated brothers, but directors Alon and Shaul Schwarz don’t stop there.
Instead they keep the cameras running long after the reunion, revealing a tale far deeper and complex, an emotional journey all the more compelling because it doesn’t answer all the questions raised. For the subjects of the film, this is somewhat maddening. For the audience, it’s powerful.
The movie opens with a visit to the directors’ uncle, Izak Szewelewicz,at his home in Israel. Izak’s mother, Aida of the title, sent Izak there from the Bergen-Belsen displaced-persons camp, where he was born after World War II. A neighborhood boy told him as a child that the people he assumed were his mother and father were not his real parents. He confronted them and they said yes, that’s right — your mother immigrated to Canada. They kept in sporadic touch over the years, with Aida visiting occasionally; by the time the movie begins she is living in an assisted-living facility in Montreal.But what seemingly everyone but Izak — including neighbors, friends and Alon and Shaul — seems to know is that Aida had another son, a younger boy, born blind. Alon and Shaul film while Izak, an emotional man to begin with, learns this. His father had taken the brother, Shepsel, to Canada, and a private investigator finds him living in Winnipeg.
Alon and Shaul film everything, includinga tearful reunion that takes place at the airport. Of course, the two men are quite different. Shepsel is more guarded with his emotions. He’s certainly led an interesting life: He was a Paralympic athlete and is still active. But when it comes to the business of repairing the fractured family he never knew he had, Shepsel is far more cautious, yet also more curious, than Izak.
There is another, bigger reunion to come: The brothers visit their mother, who Shepsel has never known. It’s fascinating to watch him work out the emotional complexities such a meeting brings out in him — Shepsel says whatever he’s thinking, which makes him an ideal subject for a documentary.
The reunion is as heartbreaking and uplifting and everything else one would imagine. Yet Shepsel is not satisfied. While he obviously relishes meeting his mother, it brings up more questions, some obvious — why did the family split, and how was it decided who lived with whom? — and others that are not so immediately apparent.
The willingness of the family to let Alon and Shaul capture such emotional moments obviously helps the film. The different personalities also add to the mix.
But what makes the movie play like compelling fiction is Aida. Whatever she may know or remember, she’s not necessarily going to share. Old and fragile (the film begins with her funeral; she died not long after meeting Shepsel), she seems content to let things lie. “It was the best I could do,” she says of her decisions. Some secrets will never be revealed.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
Music Box Filmspresents a documentary directed by Alon and Shaul Schwarz. No MPAA rating. Running time: 95 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.